In July I had another one of those yearly reminders that I am getting older, and inevitably moments of nostalgia creep in to my head, something this blog has relied on occasionally. There is probably no one from my generation who didn’t grow up without stacks of photo albums scattered throughout the house. Before the computer era it was the only way to organize the key moments and memories throughout the years. What today can fit on one single flash drive comprised several photo albums worth of those memories back then.
I remember growing up that the more recent albums taken from family excursions and milestone moments were in large paisley colored albums (it WAS the 1970’s after all). The kind with clear plastic sheets which had to be delicately peeled back and photos placed into position on the sticky back of the page. Reminders of where the photos were taken were usually written by hand on the photo borders with notes like ‘Lake Champlain, 1975’. Older photo albums belonging to my parents were usually more substantial looking ‘books’ with leather or faux-leather covers that had slots to mount photos by the corners. Often these albums had thick black or white pages, which made them look and feel more substantial, and without the plastic sheets covering the photos gave an air of sophistication.
Flipping through those albums now, the one thing that both types of albums do is to take us back to the dates in the photos. In my case that may be as a child growing up in the 1970’s, or in my parents case, might be from the 1940’s or 50’s, In either situation there is obviously a visual association as you peer into the old photograph. Clothing and hair styles that elicit laughter today or large television sets that look more like furniture compared to the sleek flat screen varieties of today. Whether you lived through that particular era or not, the photograph draws you in. I think at least part of the reason they do is because after the embarrassment at that shirt you wore in 1973 dies down, you realize there is a familiarity to the scene. You somehow feel a part of the era you are viewing in those photographs. For me, music also enters my head at moments like that.
In one of my Christmas blogs I briefly touched on the music of the English folk singer, fiddle player, and all around masterful performer Eliza Carthy. Daughter of folk singers Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson she has already had a long and varied career. And she is not even 40 yet! On her 2002 album Anglicana, she performed a traditional song called Willow Tree. At the time I was unfamiliar with that song, and was somewhat surprised that Eliza utilized a jazzy sort of swing to the song, but having been a fan of Eliza’s for several years at that point I knew she often threw caution to the wind and challenged perceptions of traditional music quite often (not to mention hair color!). Regardless of the style, I loved the song.
A year or two later in an effort to understand the music more I started purchasing some of the source recordings for much of the folk music from Britain and Ireland I was collecting. Topic Records had put out a 20 Volume CD set called The Voice Of The People that put the spotlight on the source singers responsible for so much of the folk music still performed today. These recordings are quite often rough sounding, recorded in front rooms of houses and back rooms of pubs, and sung by people who would not all be called gifted singers (I say this as a dreadful singer myself!). What they did by singing and preserving those songs handed down to them from older generations was valuable, both for the songs themselves and for future generations to hear. On one of the CD’s for The Voice Of The People was a singer named May Bradley singing Willow Tree in 1965. Just like when I had heard Eliza sing it in a jazzy style on her own album, I was now even more surprised to hear this woman singing it unaccompanied in much the same way. A glimpse at the notes to Anglicana revealed that May Bradley’s version had indirectly been the source for Eliza’s own interpretation.
A couple of months back I saw Eliza perform here in New York along with her father, touring behind a wonderful album called The Moral Of The Elephant. After the show I spent the next few days playing much of the back catalog of both Martin and Eliza Carthy. I once again played Anglicana and once Willow Tree had finished (it being the final song on the album) I immediately played the May Bradley version. I realized that there was an idea brewing based on these two similar interpretations of a song and those old photo albums.
The idea was to showcase a photograph that was free from modern intrusion. No cars or power lines in the background, no paved roads or fences. A photograph that by the absence of those objects could have been taken at any point over the years, but instead is more recent. I wanted to use those guidelines because as a photographer it is sometimes difficult to find places of unspoiled landscape like in the photo above. It bridges the gap between the different eras we see in the pages of a photo album. Was it taken in 1973, or 2010? It also made me think about singers that reinterpret older songs like Eliza Carthy, and even May Bradley herself, who also learned the song from someone. Was it recorded in 1965 or 2002? The same way that we look at those old photo albums we feel connected to the past the same can be said for music. Styles may change in both cases, but much stays the same that keeps a link of sorts with the past.
Willow Tree-Traditional, Arranged By Eliza Carthy, Ben Ivitsky & May Bradley
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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